February 14, 2019 Sandy Robson
For almost two weeks now, advocates for unhoused people have been asking Whatcom County and City of Bellingham officials to open up additional shelter during the severe winter conditions our county has been enduring.
County Executive Jack Louws and Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville maintain that the Lighthouse Mission Ministries Drop-In Center which provides emergency shelter (and meals) still has some capacity available for unhoused people seeking shelter.
According to the Lighthouse Mission Ministries (LMM) website, the purpose of the Drop-In Center is “to stabilize incoming guests, introduce them to a lifesaving relationship with Jesus Christ, offer services, and provide a motivational environment that encourages life-change.” Executive Louws is a supporter of LMM, and according to LMM’s website, his wife is on the organization’s Board of Trustees.
While LMM executive director Hans Erchinger-Davis, Executive Louws, and Mayor Linville continue to repeat the mantra that there is some shelter space still available at the Drop-In Center, they ignore the reality that some unhoused people needing shelter will not go to that facility. Instead, some unhoused people are willing to face the extreme cold and snowy elements rather than go to LMM’s Drop-In Center due to various factors such as having sensitivity to crowds and/or cramped space, noise, bad experiences some have had there, or because they have suffered some religious-based trauma and cannot stay at the Drop-In Center. LMM is a religious-based organization.
LMM’s website states its vision is: “To be a consistent friend to those in homelessness that they become God-dependent healthy members of society, with such impact that our community points to Jesus Christ.”
Also, it’s important to note that during this extreme cold weather, people have reported there has been no water at the Drop-In Center for multiple days. This was substantiated at the February 12, County Council meeting when a Drop-In Center staff person gave a public comment, reporting that while due to a broken sewer line that there has been no water at the facility for multiple days, they do have porta potties for use.
I sent an email Wednesday, February 13, 2019, to Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws, saying I heard that during his February 13 meeting with representatives from HomesNow! NotLater, he told them that in terms of the County Council’s request to make the Garden Room immediately available to be used as an emergency shelter, he indicated he would look into opening a shelter space there, but he was unsure about the length of time it would take to get an occupancy permit for that space.
HomesNow! is a Bellingham-based non-profit comprised of volunteers working together to provide homes and shelter for homeless people in Bellingham and Whatcom County. The organization is funded solely by donations. Volunteers with HomesNow! have been working tirelessly to get unhoused people sheltered, especially during these current extreme winter conditions.
I explained in my February 13 email to Executive Louws, that I did not understand why in order to open the Garden Room for emergency shelter that an occupancy permit would present any real obstacle because it appears, to me, that pursuant RCW 38.52.070(2), those kinds of typical red-tape procedures/protocols would not be necessary under a time when there is an emergency proclamation in place as is currently the case. I’ve attached a screenshot photo which highlights section (2) of RCW 38.52.070.
At the end of my email, I requested a response from Executive Louws as soon as possible, saying that time is of the essence on this issue of emergency sheltering of unhoused people during this cold weather.
Executive Louws did send me an email reply that same day, but his response to the point I presented was insubstantial to say the least. It consisted of only four words: “Thanks for your comments.” I have attached a screenshot photo of his email.
I believe that Executive Louws has been indifferent to the peril some unhoused people have been facing during these existing severe winter conditions, and I believe he has been negligent in terms of his responsibility to take the immediate actions necessary to reduce the threat to the lives of some unhoused people in Whatcom County in light of the exigencies declared in his Proclamation of Emergency, dated February 8, 2019.
Executive Louws did not even choose to attend the evening County Council meeting on Tuesday, February 11.
Yesterday, I sent an email to the Executive Assistant/Communications Coordinator for the Whatcom Executive’s Office, asking if she could please find out why Executive Louws was not present at the evening County Council meeting.
She sent a reply email saying that Executive Louws “is not required to attend Council meetings, and has made the decision not to on a number of occasions in 2018.” I already understood that was the case. She also said that Executive Louws “chooses to attend (or not) Council meetings depending on whether there are items that he needs to address directly or for which he wants to be there. Deputy Executive Tyler Schroeder most often attends and can speak to Council on Jack’s behalf if issues arise.”
I imagine Executive Louws had to expect there would be an item he’d need to address directly at the February 12 County Council meeting, and that members of the public would be attending the County Council meeting to speak to the Council about the need to open additional shelter in Whatcom County during these severe winter conditions. Also, it seems likely that Executive Louws would have knowledge of what occurred during the Bellingham City Council meeting held on Monday evening, February 11, when speaker after speaker pleaded for additional shelter to be opened by the City or County other than what is offered by Lighthouse Mission. The testimony was heartbreaking to hear.
We cannot stop demanding that our public officials do everything in their power to protect vulnerable people who do not have a warm place to go during these severe winter conditions. And, really, under the current Proclamation of Emergency declared by our county executive he is granted broad powers and authority to immediately take extraordinary measures to reduce the threat to lives, which would certainly include reducing the threat to unhoused people’s lives.
Also, our County Council should ask its legal counsel for an interpretation regarding RCW 38.52.070(2), to find out how it may be applied in terms of obtaining an occupancy permit which Executive Louws implied would be necessary, and which he told HomesNow! representatives that he was unsure how long that permit could take to obtain.